It’ll be a very different NCAA Basketball Tournament this year in a lot of ways.
All the games will be played in and around Indianapolis. Unusual schedule, with the first two rounds Friday through Monday instead of Thursday through Sunday and the Sweet 16 and Elite 8 Saturday-Tuesday instead of Thursday-Sunday. Small crowds instead of packed arenas.
In another way, it’ll be the same as always. With a big Philly presence.
With the men’s bracket now out, here are 10 observations on the bracket and the upcoming NCAA men’s (and women’s) basketball tournaments.
1. Villanova, playing without co-Big East Player of the Year Collin Gillespie out of Archbishop Wood in Warminster, drew a No. 5 seed and opens Friday in the South Region against a No. 12 seed Winthrop team that won the Big South Conference and takes a 23-1 record into the NCAA tourney. Winthrop’s only loss came in January by two points to North Carolina-Ashville, and their .958 winning percentage is 2nd-highest in Division 1 (behind undefeated Gonzaga). This is Winthrop’s 11th trip to NCAAs and first since 2017, when it lost in the first round to Butler by 12. Winthrop’s only NCAA win came in 2007 as an 11 seed over No. 6 Notre Dame in Spokane.
2. The Wildcats will see one of the country’s most versatile players Friday. Winthrop is led by 6-7 senior forward Chandler Vaudrin, who’s averaging 12.2 points, 7.2 rebounds and 6.9 assists. Vaudrin and Jason Preston of Ohio are the only players in Division 1 averaging at least 12 points, 6 assists and 6 rebounds per game.
3. If Villanova gets by Winthrop, their likely opponent next Sunday is No. 4 seed Purdue, which went 18-9 but won its last five Big Ten games before losing to Ohio State in overtime in the Big Ten quarterfinals. ‘Nova lost 79-76 to Purdue early in the 2016-2017 season.
4. Tough duty for Drexel, which got a No. 16 seed and will open Friday against No. 3 Illinois, the top seed in the Midwest Region. Illinois is 22-6 but is 14-1 in its last 15 games, including an overtime win over Ohio State Sunday in the Big Ten Championship Game. Last time Illinois played a Philly team in the tournament was 2000, when they beat Penn by 10 points in Winston-Salem. Drexel, which was just 8-7 a month ago, won the CAA Tourney to reach NCAAs for the first time since 1996, when the Dragons upset Memphis for their only tournament win.
5. Junior guard Camren Wynter leads Drexel with 16.8 points and 5.3 assists per game. Other key guys for the Dragons are senior forward James Butler (12.9 points, 9.2 rebounds), sophomore forward T.J. Bickerstaff (10.6 points, 5.4 rebounds) and senior guard Zach Walton (10.6 points, 3.9 rebounds). Mate Okros, a sophomore forward, was averaging 4.7 points per game through mid-January but is averaging 12 in six games since.
6. One local kid to root in the tourney for is Virginia Commonwealth 6-3 sophomore guard Nah’Shon “Bones” Hyland of Wilmington out of St. Georges Tech in Middletown, Del. Hyland, the A-10 Player of the Year, escaped a tragic fire in March 2018 by jumping out of a second-floor window at the family home. The fire claimed the life of Hyland’s grandmother Fay and 1-year-old cousin Maurice. Hyland landed on a brick staircase and tore his knee in the incident and was sidelined for six months, but he bounced back the next year to lead St. Georges to the semifinals of the state tournament and earn Delaware Player of the Year honors. Hyland is averaging 19.4 points and 4.7 rebounds per game. VCU, which went 19-6 and lost Sunday to St. Bonaventure in the A-10 finals, is a No. 10 seed in the West and faces No. 7 Oregon on Saturday.
7. Some other local guys to watch in the tournament: Hartford senior Traci Carter, a Philly native who played at Life Center Academy in Burlington, N.J., is averaging 11.7 points and 3.4 assists; Maryland forward Donta Scott, from Imhotep Charter, averages 10.9 points and 6.1 rebounds per game; Jalen Gaffney of Mansfield Township in Burlington County, who played at Westtown School in West Chester, comes off the bench for U. Conn.
8. Keep an eye on Patriot League champ Colgate, coached by former Penn star Matt Langel. Colgate, which got a 14 seed and faces Arkansas in the first round, is 14-1 and has won a program-record 13 straight games since its only loss, by two points on Jan. 3 to Army. The Raiders are No. 2 in Division 1 at 86.4 points per game, and Jeff Woodard, Colgate’s 6-11 center from Methacton, is one of 14 freshman in the country averaging at least 8.0 points, 4.5 rebounds and 2.0 assists per game. Langel played high school basketball at Moorestown, and his dad John was Reggie White’s attorney when he sued the Eagles in 1989.
9. And let’s not forget the Drexel women’s team, which earned an auto NCAA bid by beating top-seeded Delaware Saturday in the CAA Tournament. Drexel, coached by Amy Mallon, beat James Madison in the semifinal after trailing by 12 points and beat Delaware after trailing by nine points. The NCAA women’s bracket will be announced on Monday and the tourney will be held in San Antonio. In its only previous NCAA appearance, Drexel lost to Kansas in the first round of the 2009 tournament in Albuquerque.
10. My prediction: Illinois over Ohio State and Gonzaga over Texas in the Final 4, then Illinois over Gonzaga in the Championship Game.